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Iraq - what kind of light is at the end of the tunnel?

Mark Urban | 12:03 UK time, Thursday, 4 September 2008

Baghdad - There is light at the end of the tunnel but nobody knows how best to describe it.

Coming back here after several months, negotiations between the US and Iraqi governments about the future status of coalition forces in this country are said to be almost complete.

Time is short: the United Nations mandate governing the presence of foreign troops here will expire at the end of this year - but more importantly, it is the Bush administration's ardent wish to conclude the new deal before November's presidential elections in the US. So much of American policy here has been dominated by the electoral cycle back home that this latest milestone is of enormous importance; for since democracies normally respect treaties signed by their predecessors, this is George Bush's chance to define the next administration's approach to Iraq.

So not only will the new treaty define the circumstances and timetable for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq - whatever Barack Obama is saying about it on the stump - but it also offers the Bush Administration its last, best, chance to tell the world "we won". But how do you actually say that?

Talking to senior officers here several months ago, the word was, "General Petraeus has banned any mention of the V word". Since then pretty much all of the security indicators have shown continued improvement: deaths of US forces are down (despite the occasional blip); Iraqi civilian deaths ditto; Muqtada al Sadr's shiite militia has extended its ceasefire indefinitely; roadside bombs using tell-tale Iranian-supplied explosive devices are down; Iraqi forces led the major crackdown on shiite militias in Basra; and Anbar province, once the heart of the sunni insurgency, has been handed to Iraqi government control.

Iraqi ministers now suggest that all US combat troops will be off the streets by 2011, Gen Petraeus himself that they could be off the streets of Baghdad within one year. The new treaty will enshrine these objectives but also set out the ways that US forces will continue to operate in Iraq, supporting the Iraqis with airpower and logistics as well as continuing with sensitive special operations.

This major change in Iraq - and it might be as little as a few weeks away - will require an appropriate political message. The White House and Iraqi government will be keen to come up with phrases more meaningful and punchy than talking about "encouraging security trends" or "conditions-based withdrawals". The US Administration, naturally, insists that the new treaty has been made possible because of dramatic security improvements brought about by its own surge and Gen Petraeus's new approach to winning over the Iraqi people.

But nobody has forgotten the president's infamous "mission accomplished" speech in May 2003 and anyway the language of "victory" is inappropriate to peace-building efforts with the former militants who have stopped fighting.

There are some, still, who believe the light at the end of the tunnel may be that proverbial oncoming train - in the form of shia militants waiting out the US, or the new sunni "Awakening" militias turning their guns on the shia-led government. The performance of that government, for example in spending the country's bulging pot of petro-dollars to create more jobs, is still woeful.

Most of those who watch the situation professionally however - be they spooks, hacks, or politicians - have become more optimistic than that. The government's offensive in Basra earlier this year has shown an Iraqi ability to face down even powerful militia groups, albeit with the type of US support envisaged under the new treaty. The question remains though as to how that optimism will be phrased in coming months, and whether the Bush Administration will be able to resist the temptation to crow about turning the situation around here, and to declare victory.


  • Comment number 1.


    I don't profess any political invasion acumen but from a human point of view: do we not see chaos whenever the 'west' tries to overlay tribalism with arbitrary boundaries and notional democracy?
    My guess is that when superior might retreats, the tribes will fight for control of the tunnel-end light and use it to illuminate the settling of scores recent and ancient, with ethnic cleansing, torture and misery. Is this not the legacy we leave from most of our adventures?

  • Comment number 2.

    ALTERNATIVELY (something completely different)

    Oh this life is such a puzzle
    With its bustle and its hassle
    And I struggle to see meaning
    In its mad meanderings.
    Even though I do less rushing
    Still I find that time is pressing
    As I forge forever forward
    Navigating each new bend.

    But what’s this? – Now I am older
    I perceive a subtle softening
    Of Nature’s shrouding darkness
    That besets the questing mind.
    It’s the light of understanding
    At the end of that dark tunnel
    Illuming cosmic writing
    On the wall - that blocks its end.

  • Comment number 3.

    who cares what type of bloodbath happens after we pull out?

    And why is uk defence spending 40 billion when russia is only 20 billion and eu countries less than that?

  • Comment number 4.

    I have to agree with #1 Barriesingleton, the history of colonial powers has always been to leave failed states in their wake.

    You cannot draw arbitrary lines on a map, encompassing different ethnic peoples, religions, traditions, cultures, and then expect it to work as a single nation without problems. This is I am sure the reason for how those states boundaries were drawn up, the colonial powers didn't want to see the independent nations succeed too much.

    Look at Iraq with the British, it was doomed to fail with 3 ethnic divisions, and it needed, rightly or wrongly a strong and dictatorial hand to keep the nation together. Left to it's own devices, it will split into 3 or more regions, each mutually hating the other.

    Take also India and Pakistan, the borders left by the British again have left disputed areas such as Kashmir as a thorn in the region which is festering and causing problems to the current day, even if we forget the many hundreds of thousands who were killed during the troubles of partition.

    It is ironic that our so called leaders are not looking for solutions, pity they didn't plan a bit better if they were determined to be warmongers and take us into this fiasco.

    I have to admit, it did bring a smile to my face to read that the current Iraqi regime is favouring any country but the US for new construction and oil projects, many of them worth billions. The Chinese, Russia and Iran are all doing brisk business with the regime in Iraq today, so much for a peace dividend for Bush and his oil grabbing cronies.

    What have we achieved in Iraq? Today the US has more than 100,000 people in detention, in squalid prisons that are not even suitable for animals. These people have not been charged or prosecuted for any crime, perhaps the Iraqis would be forgiven for wishing they were back under Saddam style rule, he certainly imprisoned less people, tyrannical though he was.

  • Comment number 5.

    #3 Russia has conscription, pays its troops peanuts and doesn't worry about safety too much - see the Kursk. Most EU nations are much smaller than us and know the US and UK will come to their rescue. France spends about the same as the UK on defence.

  • Comment number 6.

    If Iraq does get rid of substantial numbers of US/UK troops and increase internal stability they could renegotiate the oil and rebuilding contracts which seem to have legal issues with regard to tendering and fairness to Iraq - in my limited knowledge. That could apparently lead right up to Cheney's door.

    Therefore the cynic in me thinks that there will be those that don't want to see Iraq too stable and that therefore powerful interests will see to it that there is a dependency relationship and status quo.

    On the other hand Obama and McCain seem to be unlikely to allow any murky background policies to persist so such an approach would be forced to mutate into another form.

  • Comment number 7.

    #4. Britain didn't draw up the map of Iraq. The ottomans did. Under the ottomans Iraq was one administrative unit with an autonomous Kuwait. We left the borders more or less untouched and handed the whole lot over to our ally Prince Faisal.

    Splitting the country into 3 would be a disaster as has been explained by my Iraqi friend (a sunni from Kurdistan). An independent Kurdistan will encourage the Turkish Kurds to try and join with them (like S.Ossetia), a Shia south will be too friendly with Iran which will effectively put Iran on Saudi's border and the Sunni middle part will be cut off from the sea, cut off from the oil and will be a breeding ground for terror. A united federal Iraq is the only stable option for the region and the tribal differences need to be abandoned. Scotland and England overcame centuries of war to unite as one nation- so can iraq.

  • Comment number 8.

    #6 thegangofone, the contracts are already going to China and Russia, see

  • Comment number 9.


    ...France spends about the same as the UK on defence...

    telegraph had a chart today that had france spending 17 billion on defence? The germans about 20 billion?

    if we withdrew the armoured regiments from germany [is it still a threat?] then it might focus their minds a bit more on beefing up their own defence?

    how would we like if panzer regiments occupied the uk for 60 years?

  • Comment number 10.

    #9. Ignoring the fact that our defence budget is actually £32 billion, not £40 and at 2.5% of GDP is about NATO average (France spends 2.4%), the difference can be explained by the fact that our armed forces actually do something useful: whenever there's a hurricane in the carribean the RN are first on seen, our frigates intercept over 50% of the worlds cocaine and we do far more than we should for the UN.

    Its interesting you use the word 'panzer'- its precisely because germany couldn't keep its panzers behind its own borders that we are in Germany. If we hadn't done such a good job in 1940 there WOULD have been panzers in the UK. In any case given the massive German outcry whenever we do threaten to close bases in Germany clearly they don't mind. Certainly whenever I was there the locals were quite nice and helpful to my squadron. We're allies, not invaders.

  • Comment number 11.

    When a puppet state goes wrong it almost without exception is a disaster.

    The Americans sustained the Saddam Hussein regime for decades. He became more and more arrogant. The Americans even supplied him with nerve gas, which he used to gas his own people.

    The most terrifying danger is from within the USA and is typified by Sarah Palin's remark that implied that only Americans had human rights. This is a very common sentiment in Americans - it allows Guantanamo Bay; it allows the indiscriminate slaughter of children at funeral parties in Afghanistan and it is, I believe, the direct result of fundamentalist (Christian) religion.

    This is the same fundamentalism that permits and encourages the Mullahs of Kabul to urge that women should receive no education and have no human rights.

    I am sorry but the light at the end of the tunnel is the train coming towards us. We have created these monsters through our own religious error; our own denial of human rights to our enemies; through our own greed for oil and I see no good coming from any of it any time soon.

    It will take many generations, or perhaps a major economic collapse!() for the USA to regard other people with differing beliefs as deserving of the same human rights as they claim for their fellow citizens.

    Guantanamo Bay is an abomination and so too is the fundamentalist Islamic attitude to women in various parts of the World.
    Unless and until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is recognised, respected and fully accepted by the peoples, the governments and religious faiths of the globe we will be in for continual war and suffering.

    The west has meddled, as a previous poster has highlighted. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and in the treaty of Paris of 1921 we drew lines on maps and also made promises to various peoples - that we did not keep (the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Armenians etc.) many of the problems stem from the collapse of the British and French Empires after the first and then the second World Wars. There are no quick fixes.

    The invasion or Iraq followed by the statement by Dick Cheney 'we don't do nation building' show that the USA has no clue what to do (as it did not in Vietnam) and it would be better if it left sooner rather than later and let what ever will happen, happen. Above all we, the west, should not take sides, nor should we arm any faction.

  • Comment number 12.

    A million plus Iraqi deaths, 4-5 million exiles, walled segregated neighbourhoods and Iraq's historical heritage (and her oil) looted.

    I don't see how any measure can realistically be seen as a success for anyone other than the arms industry and oil companies.

  • Comment number 13.

    Of course the people who told us al-qaeda would force the US out of Iraq - another Vietnam I seem to recall them saying - are now very disapointed. Dodgy claims about a 'million plus dead' and 'looted oil' are all they have left.

    Reality is that al-qaeda was forced out of Iraq - not by the US but by fellow muslims. I'd be interested in seeing more on the implications of this defeat in the Muslim world - what effect is this defeat having on AQs credibility? Can Arabs still see them as a credible saviour after fellow Arabs turned against them?

    OK the Americans have reasons for not stating they have won - but I'm damn sure that al-qaeda have lost.


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